It’s a bit frustrating watching the events in Ferguson unfold on the national stage since the brutal murder of Michael Brown and the police coverup of their own brutality and White Supremacy. It’s frustrating largely because white people – regardless of political affiliation – keep making it about white people when, for the most part, it isn’t. Which doesn’t make it any less important. Meanwhile, the institutions of this country are turned against black people and other persons of color with an unrelenting hand, ready to beat back any protest of the New Jim Crow – including tear gas and rubber bullets against not just supposed rioters, but also peaceful protesters, and even the media who report it. But let’s make one thing clear: the classic Jim Crow was not directed at White people and neither is the new Jim Crow.
I speak from experience. Three of my grandparents are of European heritage, one is Puerto Rican. By classic definitions, I am not white, but you wouldn’t know that from looking at me, let alone my child – who would also be classified as “impure” just a couple decades ago. Some features, mostly, but for the most part, I am seen as white. Which has been a bit of a juxtaposition in most of the neighborhoods I have lived in through my life, including my current one.
I have lived and worked in poorer Puerto Rican, Black and Mexican-predominant areas, in these very communities deeply affected by police and imprisonment violence. But because of Whiteness – because of the different ways that police and the police state treat white people than black, indigenous, and Middle Eastern people, I can literally count the number of times I’ve been pulled over/harassed by cops. And only one time literally harassed. I never got so much as a ticket. Warnings several times. And questions. Never taken to the police department. Never arrested. Always every time these unwanted interactions are for being in the “wrong” neighborhood. Never mind that the “wrong” neighborhood is my home or that I’m going down the street to visit a friend.
In a segregated world, the police are here to keep people locked down much the same as banks and realtors have been. People of a specific color are supposed to know where they belong and where they don’t belong. And being – merely walking or driving – in these forbidden zones can mean harassment, or a firebomb (as we were warned when we moved to an all-white neighborhood and hosted black youth from our church). It can mean they could be suspects for crimes they just happened to be in proximity to. Having nice clothes can be treated with suspicion. Wearing a baseball cap or a hoodie or a jersey or bum clothes are all suspicious and lead to harassment.
So while I can wear what I want and, more-or-less go wherever without the police or security following me, my Black and Latino/a friends, though? Nope. Black kids in my church’s youth group? My black and Latina students, co-workers, classmates? Baggy pants, suits, PhD’s, high school drop outs – in the New Jim Crow, policing forces are looking first and primarily at the color of skin. And that needs to be kept in check. One of my white friends can go anywhere without fear of the cops pulling her over. Her Puerto Rican husband jumps in the same car and he gets pulled over within the block. A local white activist friend only gets pulled over for having Mexican passengers and is asked, incredulously, what he’s doing with these people? A young black friend tells me how he can fill pages and pages of complaints about police harassment and any time he mentions it online his white Christian friends message him and tell him he’s overreacting.
And, lest we forget or in case we weren’t aware, one black man is killed by a police officer or a police proxy every 28 hours. So much for a fair trial. Another example is the little eight year old Sioux girl who was tased by police in South Dakota last year because they felt they couldn’t get a paring knife from her hand. They justified the action – where four police officers were in the room with her – by pointing to the alternatives of batons or guns. I repeat, she is an eight year old girl.
The old Jim Crow system was a top-to-bottom way of life that separated and detained African Americans, that existed to remind them of their place in a White Supremacist United States that was founded partially on black enslavement and the rule of rich white men. The old Jim Crow and its lynchings were created and implemented to keep Black bodies and minds in their proper place, at the foot of the ladder, at the base of capitalism. The old Jim Crow wasn’t directed at White people. Neither is the New Jim Crow.
For the most part, despite what White Libertarians and White Liberals say, Ferguson isn’t about the police coming for small town White America next. The militarized police is not gonna go after middle class America next. It is focused on keeping Black America in its place. And the only time most White Americans face it (with the possible exception of meth users and dealers, which also needs to be examined), is when they challenge it. This was one of the lessons of the Occupy Wall Street movement, of the Battle in Seattle, of the G8 and NATO protests here in Chicago: Once you show you’re a bit of a threat to the status quo, then they’ll hound you.
But when we take off our protesting clothes and put down our bullhorns, placards and chants, we are no longer a threat. This is important to keep in mind because the majority of White Americans would rather have harsher penalties if they know it will affect black people more negatively, as a new study shows. We need to fight not just because it’s in our own interest, but because it’s in the interest of what is right and good – if we truly believe in equality and justice and moving this country forward.
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